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Jackie Kennedy and the Camelot that wasn't

Published August 28, 2009 6:00 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"There will never be another Camelot, again."

So said the 34-year-old, black-veiled Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, in 1963, a week after the funeral services for her husband, the assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Today our thoughts are turned again to the Kennedy family as the last of that "Camelot" generation, Sen. Ted Kennedy, is being honored and laid to rest.

Jacqueline Kennedy clearly sought to frame the epitaph for her husband's administration as a magical time when the nation's capital, the White House and the First Family were the center of the artistic, literary and musical world.

But the historian Theodore M. White, who had admired John Kennedy, noted in his 1978 book, In Search of History, that "her characterization was a misreading of history. ... the Kennedy Camelot never existed, though it was a time when reason was brought to bear on public issues and the Kennedy people were 'more often right than wrong and astonishingly incorruptible.'"

Jackie Kennedy's gauzy characterization of her husband's presidency as Camelot is somewhat ironic, given the many meanings of the word.

Jacqueline Bouvier's French ancestors had made it to this country several generations before, and the family had an affection for France and things French. Jackie studied French in school, went to France for further schooling and worked in France before her marriage.

What does the name Camelot convey? For the English and many Americans, of course, it is the Camelot of King Arthur and his knights and their lovely ladies. This, of course, was the lustrous Camelot of Jackie Kennedy's apellation.

But in Samuel Johnson's mammoth A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, Camelot was defined as a French noun describing a woven fluffy cloth originally made of camel's hair and silk. The weavers substituted wool as soon as they were able. There is no entry in the great 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica.

Jackie Kennedy, with her studies and experiences in France and an intimate knowledge of high French culture, must have been aware of other definitions of "camelot" that have nothing to do with Arthur. In French, the word camelot means "tramp," and "camelote" meant "trash, rubbish."

More recently, the Giant Paperback French Dictionary defines "camelot" as "merchandise of bad, evil, ill, wicked, ill-natured, mischievous, naughty," and a French dictionary has it as "rubbish." In Merriam-Webster's French-English Dictionary, we learn that camelot means "1: street vendor; 2, paper boy; and camelotte, nf, trash, junk."Jackie Kennedy had Englishmen among her ancestors. If the term Camelot was part of her English culture, what of the ancient roots of various place names beginning with "Cam"? The Celtic root of Cam means "crooked."

Today, these many non-Arthurian definitions would, in the minds of its most vociferous critics, perfectly apply to the current administration, whether wrapped in wool, camel's hair or silk. So, in that sense perhaps, Camelot has come again.

Sorry, Jackie.

William L. Knecht practiced law in California, is retired and lives in Sandy.